One of Grand Teton National Park’s longer day hikes, the 18.6-mile Paintbrush Divide Loop offers breathtaking views of the Teton Range’s rugged, alpine landscape. Because of its length, much of the trail is quite lightly trafficked. With the exception of the one stretch of trail from Jenny Lake to Hidden Falls/Inspiration Point, we were able to really enjoy some solitude here.
The trail to Paintbrush Divide begins at the String Lake Trailhead, just north of Jenny Lake. Parking is fairly limited, so we’d recommend getting there early to secure a spot. The trail can be hiked in either direction, and we ultimately opted to hike counterclockwise. Hiking this direction allowed us to ascend the steeper section of trail first, and to enjoy continuous views of Grand Teton and the Cathedral Group as we descended through Cascade Canyon on the return.
For the first 3.5 miles, the trail climbed gently through the forests along the shore of String Lake to Paintbrush Canyon, offering a quick glimpse of Leigh Lake. The forest quickly thinned as the trail climbed more steeply through the canyon, gaining 3,200 vertical feet over the next 4.5 miles. Around 5.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail split with an optional detour leading to the shore of Holly Lake. While we chose to continue up Paintbrush Canyon, a quick detour past the lakeshore wouldn’t have added any extra mileage to the route (as noted on trail map).
Climbing up to Paintbrush Divide at 10,700 feet, the views are spectacular, with Mt. Woodring looming overhead. A light dusting of snow had fallen the day before we hiked, making the high pass appear even more rugged and austere. The winds were absolutely whipping as we crested the divide, and we fought to get our windbreakers and extra layers on in the strong gusts.
Almost as soon as we began descending the other side, the winds diminished. Looking across to the peaks on the other side of the valley, we spotted Mica Lake – a small, turquoise tarn perched at the edge of a cirque at around 9,600 feet. A few rays of sunshine had begun to illuminate the valley below and, as we turned the next corner, Lake Solitude came into view. The verdant slopes heading down into Cascade Canyon were a stark contrast to the bleaker landscape we traversed along the western end of Paintbrush Canyon.
From the highpoint of Paintbrush Divide, it was a steady two-mile descent to Lake Solitude, losing about 1,700’ of elevation. Coming down the rocky hillside, pika were chirping and scampering about in every direction, their mouths full of grasses as they stocked their dens for the impending winter. When we finally reached the lake, it was pretty quiet, with only a few other groups of hikers sitting around enjoying a peaceful lunch.
From Lake Solitude, it was another 8 miles back to the trailhead. The path followed the banks of Cascade Creek as it descended gently through Cascade Canyon. For much of the return trip, the sharp peaks of the Cathedral Group (Grand Teton, Mt. Owen and Teewinot) towered in the west. As we trekked closer to Jenny Lake, the canyon walls soared higher and higher above us, eventually overtaking the mountain views.
Unexpectedly, after a really beautiful, tranquil hike, the approach to Jenny Lake became appalling crowded. So much so, that for the first time in four months of hiking, we were forced to put on our masks. I was not at all comfortable with the throngs on people on that last section of trail, and we hastened our already quick pace just to get away from everyone.
That last short portion of trail along Cascade Creek is home to Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls. The two landmarks – a viewpoint overlooking Jenny Lake and a 100-foot cascade – are two of the most popular spots in the Tetons. Many visitors take the 12-minute boat shuttle across Jenny Lake to make the easy, two-mile round-trip walk to the falls and overlook. Needless to say, we opted to take a fork to the left and return directly to String Lake without visiting the overcrowded hotspots. While it was probably only about a mile where the trail got painfully busy, it felt like an eternity. After cutting off that hellacious segment, however, we enjoyed a much more peaceful hike as we finished the last couple miles along Jenny Lake’s northwest shore.
Overall, we thought the Paintbrush Divide Loop was a pretty spectacular hike. While it can easily be done in a single day, many people opt to camp at the numerous sites along the trail and turn it into a two-day adventure (or longer, if you combine it with Hurricane Pass). And while the short section of trail near Inspiration Point flat out sucked, the rest of the hike was surprisingly serene. Cascade Canyon was quite beautiful, though, and the scenery [pretty much] made that one dreadful mile worth it.
Total distance: 18.6 miles
Elevation gain: 4,025 feet